Though the best laptops on the market usually cost over $800, the average U.S. consumer spends $450 or less on a new notebook. A couple of our readers, Dante_12 and freiord, posted to our forums, asking for help choosing a new budget notebook. Freiord posted about looking for any 13-, 14- or 15-inch mainstream laptop under $500, while Dante_12 posted about two very inexpensive ($300-range) laptops.
To understand what makes for a good budget consumer laptop, we first need to talk about some of the key components that make a good notebook that sells at a more expensive price. Because if you can find one or more of these features on a low-cost laptop, you're way ahead of the game. I've put these in priority order, from most to least important.
1920 x 1080 (1080p) screen: The vast majority of budget laptops come with 1366 x 768-resolution screens that aren't very sharp and don't fit much content on the desktop. If you can get a laptop with a 1920 x 1080 (also known as 1080 or full-HD) resolution display you can see a lot more text on the screen without scrolling. You can also comfortably place two windows side by side for multitasking and see a lot more detail in videos. If you can get a laptop with a 1080p screen, that should be your top priority.
Solid-state storage: Most low-cost laptops use mechanical hard drives, but if you can get a system with a solid-state drive (SSD) or eMMC memory, you'll see faster boot and application-open times, and better overall performance. In the sub-$500 range, you'll probably see a few systems with eMMC memory rather than a speedy SSD, but you'll still get much better performance than you would with a 5,400- or 7,200-rpm hard drive.
Premium build quality: Manufacturers usually economize on the fit and finish of low-cost laptops, using cheap plastic rather than metal or soft-touch materials. If you can get a more premium feel on your budget laptop, that's a plus.
Core i5 CPU: An Intel Core i5 CPU gives the best balance between price and performance, but you're not likely to find one of these processors on a budget laptop. However, for users who aren't doing a lot of productivity work or gaming, a Core i3 or Pentium or Celeron CPU can more than suffice.
Now that we know what to look for, let's check out some budget laptops that have a few of these features.
Asus VivoBook E403SA ($399)
Though this laptop is more than a year old, it's still a fantastic budget choice. The 14-inch VivoBook E403SA ticks off the first three bullet points on our list, with a 1080p screen, a 128GB eMMC storage drive and an aluminum lid. This laptop's Intel Pentium N3700 processor isn't top of the line, but it provides more than adequate performance for multitasking, light productivity work and web surfing.
Best of all, the 3.18-pound E403SA laptop lasts over 9 hours on a charge, so it's light enough and long-lasting enough to go with you anywhere. A USB Type-C port is available for charging and data.
Available for under $350, this configuration of the Aspire E 15 is currently the top-selling laptop on Amazon.com, thanks to the device's sharp screen, generous storage and relatively powerful CPU. The E 15 meets our top feature request, with a 15.6-inch, 1080p display, and it comes close to meeting our CPU request, with a 7th Generation Core i3 processor, which is much faster than the Pentium and Celeron CPUs you usually see in this price range.
Though we wish the E 15 had an SSD for better performance, this laptop does have a 1TB hard drive with plenty of space for videos, photos and games. It also has a DVD drive so you can watch movies or install software from a disc.
If you want an affordable 2-in-1 with a high-res display, the Inspiron 13 5000 could be your best bet. The $499 starting configuration features a 13-inch, 1080p screen; a 500GB hard drive; and an Intel Pentium 4415U processor. Best of all, you get a design in which the lid bends back a full 360 degrees, so you can turn the Inspiron into a tablet or use it in tent mode.
We tested a more expensive configuration of the Inspiron 13 5000 2-in-1 and were pleased with its snappy keyboard but unimpressed with its 6-hour battery life (8 hours is average) and middling color reproduction. However, for under $500, you're not going to do much better.
This 15.6-inch laptop has some pretty high-end specs for a system that costs under $500. Not only does the HP Notebook 15-ay011nr have a 1080p screen, but it also features a Core i5 processor and 8GB of RAM, two specs you rarely see in this price range. A 1TB hard drive and a DVD burner round out this powerful package.
If you a want a detachable 2-in-1 for a really low price and don't mind working with a 10-inch display, the Miix 310 is a great value. For under $300, you get both the tablet and its keyboard. Don't expect to use the Miix 310 for serious productivity work, because it's powered by a rather-pedestrian Intel Atom processor. However, with the machine's 12+ hours of battery life and 2.4-pound chassis, you can carry this Lenovo hybrid all day.
The official Geeks Geek, as his weekly column is titled, Avram Piltch has guided the editorial and production of Laptopmag.com since 2007. With his technical knowledge and passion for testing, Avram programmed several of LAPTOP's real-world benchmarks, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. He holds a master’s degree in English from NYU.